Predictable Identities: 10 – Big Updates

When the world conforms better to your expectations, whether through effective action or improving models, it feels great. When the world slides towards unpredictability, it sucks. So how does changing your mind feel? That depends on whether the change improves or breaks your predictions.

Look at the image below until you can make out what it is.

Got it? The moment when the picture resolves feels good because it resolves into something familiar. Random blobs are unpredictable, but you know what a cow looks like and what to expect of it.

How about this one?

Changing your mind about communism is much harder than about a picture of a cow. Whatever your current view of communism, it is a high-level model with multiple associations. It impacts many concrete predictions about nations, politics, your life and career choices, and what sort of person you will get along (i.e., cooperate) with: the Ethiopian lady picking the coffee or the Londoner consultant dude drinking it.

Updating a high-level model is a risky undertaking because it immediately breaks all the predictions that depend on it. You must have an entire alternative system of smaller beliefs and connections in place that fit the new model – then it feels like an epiphany or a long-needed paradigm shift. To convert someone to atheism, it is better first to convince them that atheism doesn’t necessitate immorality or a belief in transforming monkeys.

Without this scaffolding, adopting the new idea will promptly make the world less predictable even if it may be a better-predicting model in the long term. This feels bad, and your brain will pull out all the stops to avoid it: confirmation bias, isolated demands for rigor, flat out denial. And if the new model’s messenger is too insistent to ignore, shooting the messenger is always an option too.

Series Navigation<< Predictable Identities: 9 – How to ChangePredictable Identities: 11 – Fear, Myths and the Outgroup, Part I >>

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About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog, putanumonit.com, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.

Comments

  1. It’s interesting to think about the type of stuff that scaffolding should be made of.

    The biggest mistake we make when modeling minds (especially our own) is describing them in logical terms. Atheists believe in transforming apes. Atheism is stupid, ergo.. not an atheist.

    Like the cow picture, this sort of reasoning is comforting.

    People where I’ve known people to change their mind sometimes describe their conversion in such terms, but if you prod the actual sequence of events… the scaffolding seems to be made of squishier stuff. The logical reason can follow retrospectively.

    Atheist, communist, creationist.. these are identities at least to the extent that they’re positions. The scaffolding is, as often as not, social & personal identity and associations. Atheist friends or clerical enemies can be more effective scaffolding than lessons in darwin.

    Motivated reasoning is the default. A lack of reason is rarely the type of thing that will prevent a conversion, given appropriate motivations.

    Interestingly, this seems to work in reverse when we think about adversarial positions/identities. When a Communist meets a liberal or a Muslim an atheist… motivation is the first explanation we look for of the other persons opinion. The reason you believe in transforming monkeys is because of the self-esteem hit you’d take by accepting Allah was greater than yourself.

  2. “Without this scaffolding, adopting the new idea will promptly make the world less predictable even if it may be a better-predicting model in the long term. This feels bad, and your brain will pull out all the stops to avoid it:”

    I’ve been curious lately if this has to be the case. It seems like people can learn to become more comfortable with the act of trying out different frameworks through practice. Would we experience the same discomfort when adopting new maps if we were raised in an environment where we get to consistently train to switch between reality tunnels in a safe environment?

    • Totally agree. I find that THC is a good catalyst for these kinds of reflection and reality revisioning activities. After some practice the “stakes” you’ve dedicated to a particular world view become much more internally negotiable, and alterations based on new learnings feel like improvements…not surrendering. Michael Pollan explores this phenomenon in much more depth in his new book.

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